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POLITICAL PARTIES PREPARE TO COMPETE FOR 14 SEATS IN THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT

Fight to represent Slovakia begins

THE SLOVAK government approved a draft bill on elections to the European Parliament (EP) January 29, leading experts to urge politicians to raise public awareness about the role of the EU institution.
The Treaty of Nice guarantees Slovakia 14 representatives in the EP after it joins the EU, scheduled for spring 2004. Elections for the EP are also expected to take place in 2004, after the accession of the EU's 10 new member countries.
According to the draft law, Slovak citizens and citizens of EU member countries with permanent residence in Slovakia aged over 18 will have the right to vote in the elections. Slovaks and EU citizens living in Slovakia older than 21 will be eligible to stand for election in the vote.

THE SLOVAK government approved a draft bill on elections to the European Parliament (EP) January 29, leading experts to urge politicians to raise public awareness about the role of the EU institution.

The Treaty of Nice guarantees Slovakia 14 representatives in the EP after it joins the EU, scheduled for spring 2004. Elections for the EP are also expected to take place in 2004, after the accession of the EU's 10 new member countries.

According to the draft law, Slovak citizens and citizens of EU member countries with permanent residence in Slovakia aged over 18 will have the right to vote in the elections. Slovaks and EU citizens living in Slovakia older than 21 will be eligible to stand for election in the vote.

The proposed election model is, in many respects, similar to the Slovak parliamentary-election system. Slovakia's 14 seats will be proportionally divided between candidates of parties or groups of parties running together, provided the parties and coalitions win more than 5 and 7 per cent of the vote respectively.

Along with submitting candidate lists, parties presenting candidates will be required to pay a fee of Sk50,000 (1,250 euro).

At present, the scope of the EP's activities is much more limited than that of national parliaments, experts say.

"The EP has three basic functions. Firstly it participates on decision making, secondly it approves the president of the European Commission (EC), and thirdly it has budgetary powers," Vladimír Bilčík, analyst with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, explained.

"The EP is not a parliament in the traditional sense. It does not decide about issues such as taxes. It has restricted legislative powers and minimal competencies in the field of foreign policy. It is difficult to compare the EP with national legislative bodies, and it is unlikely that it will ever become a traditional parliament," Bilčík said.

The Convention on the Future of the European Union, a body established to put together the union's first constitution, is currently considering how the role of the EP might be changed to better fit a larger EU. Analysts feel that the ongoing debate may lead to increased powers for the body.

"There is a big discussion at the moment about the possibility of the EP electing, rather than just approving, the president of the EC. This proposal was recently put forward by the Germans and the French," said Bilčík, adding that the EP may gain further competencies in the legislative process in due course.

Although they are not yet involved in the institution, Slovak political parties are starting to formulate their positions regarding the future role of the EP.

"The position of the EP should definitely be strengthened from the very beginning of the legislative process," said Peter Matula, PR manager for the ANO party. "The main way to achieve that should be through an early warning system, with the EC listening more to the EP and national parliaments."

ANO's coalition partner the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) shares the view that the EP should be given more clout.

"We are in favour of increasing the legitimacy of European decision making by strengthening parliamentary elements of the EP," said Ivan Harman, SDKÚ secretary general.

There are eight parliamentary groups in the EP and elected MEPs from Slovakia will have to choose which to join. Thus, MEPs are rarely grouped according to country, rather according to ideology and political affiliation.

"[The Slovak MEPs] will never act as a block of 14 MEPs, Instead, they will vote based on their ties with party groups. National blocs hardly ever form," said political scientist Miroslav Kusý.

Bilčík agreed: "Political identity is becoming more and more important, but there are occasions when national interests prevail."

"Elected ANO representatives will be active in the European Liberal, Democratic, and Reform Party (ELDR). The reason is simple - ANO is an associated member of the ELDR," said Matula.

The SDKÚ, on the other hand, will be affiliated with a different party group.

"Our candidates will belong to the group of the European People's Party, which is currently the largest fraction in the EP. The SDKÚ currently has observer status and after Slovakia's entry into the EU it will automatically become a regular member of the European People's Party," said Harman.

Despite the low number of Slovak MEP seats in the EU body, which will have more than 730 members after enlargement, Slovaks hope there is a chance they will still make a difference.

"It depends on the circumstances. As 14 MEPs they mean nothing, but they can be the swing faction," said Kusý.

In Kusý's opinion, Slovak political parties will be vying to get their people into the EP, despite its relative impotency.

"It's a prestigious matter and it is also a very attractive matter financially. Some individuals and parties have already declared their interest. [Chairman of the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia Vladimír] Mečiar, for example, promised some of his former MPs candidature in the EP when he decided not to place them on the candidate list for the Slovak parliamentary elections [which took place in September 2002]," said Kusý.

Representatives of both ANO and the SDKÚ confirmed that their parties have started preparing for the elections and have mechanisms in place for selecting candidates.

As for the man on the street, most Slovaks still know very little about the nature and role of the EP.

"The people have no knowledge [about the EP]," said Kusý.

"As soon as the election campaign starts, it will be necessary to tell the public what the EP is good for. Political parties that want to present their candidates will have to run big campaigns. I think that will raise the people's interest," he said.

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